Summer Book Club Final Week: The Middlesteins

This will be the final installment of this year’s Summer Book Club!  I’ve enjoyed this project a lot – both the incentive it gave me to read a lot of books, and the comments from all of you about what you’ve been reading. My intention is to hold a blog book club again next summer.  Thanks for your participation!

I hope you will continue to follow Classroom as Microcosm throughout the year.  Starting tomorrow, in celebration of the blog’s upcoming SEVEN YEAR ANNIVERSARY (!!!), I will be re-publishing, with commentary, the blog’s top ten shared posts.  These are the posts that readers have liked (or, in some cases, hated) enough to pass on to their friends, family and colleagues.  Tomorrow, look for a reprise of a post that addresses a question on many teachers’ minds as summer vacation draws to a close: what if one of my classes is really, really bad?

Today, summer book club guidelines still apply: if you’ve read the books I’m reading, please tell us what you think, either here in the comments, or with a link to your own blog.  If not, please tell us what you’ve been reading this week.

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middlesteinsIn the opening chapter of Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins, we meet five-year-old Edie and her mother.  They are on the four flights of stairs leading to their apartment, and Edie doesn’t want to walk any more; she wants to be carried.  Her mother’s arms are full of big grocery bags, and Edie is not a small girl; a power struggle ensues.  Within a few pages, we learn a lot about Edie.

She just wanted to be carried.  She wanted to be carried and cuddled and fed salty liverwurst and red onion on warm rye bread.  She wanted to read and talk and laugh and watch television and listen to the radio, and at the end of the day she wanted to be tucked into bed, and kissed good night by one or both of her parents, it did not matter which, for she loved them both equally.  She wanted to watch the world around her go by, and make up stories in her head about everything she saw, and sing all the little songs they taught her in Sunday school, and count as high as she could possibly count, which was currently over one thousand.

A few days ago, I read Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker essay “The Scourge of ‘Relatability'”.  In it, Mead explains that our need for stories that are “relatable” is relatively recent, and that it is stunting us and degrading the experience of reading.  She draws a distinction between “identification” and “relatability” that I like very much.

The concept of identification implies that the reader or viewer is, to some degree at least, actively engaged with the work in question: she is thinking herself into the experience of the characters on the page or screen or stage.  But to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

When we meet Edie many years later, in the second and third chapters, is she “relatable”? (Note: I hate the word “relatable,” and have told students that it is not a word, that it grammatically indefensible as a word, and that they are forbidden to use it.  The New Yorker has now explained its etymology and grudgingly accepted it, so I guess I must give up this fight.)  For me, Edie is not relatable according to Mead’s definition.  She is not a “flattering confirmation of [my] solipsism”: she weighs over 200 pounds, and will gain more than 100 more before the end of the novel; she is dying of complications from diabetes, and yet continues to ply herself with three-sandwich dinners at McDonald’s and enormous multi-course meals at her favourite Chinese restaurant, despite the gentle protestations of her family.  She is hard-edged and full of denial; she is also very smart, very sure of herself, and not prepared to take anyone else’s crap.  Everyone around her is out of their minds with worry about her, and she absolutely refuses to change.

It’s hard to relate to someone who is loved and cared for yet defiantly killing herself, but I identified with many things about Edie; anyone who has struggled with emotional eating, or any other bad but delicious habit, probably will too.  There is a beautiful exchange with her little son and daughter that shows us how our human minds can move from resentment to the grip of love to self-hatred to optimism in the space of seconds:

in theory, she should be happy to spend time with her children, but sometimes she found them a little dull.  Playing with them was boring, and it wasn’t even their fault.  It was just the notion of playing itself….[Benny] pulled from his pocket a string of orange and pink beads on a long, narrow rubber thread and held it up in the air.  “It’s for you.”  He smiled – oh, he beamed! The beam that could break your heart.

I’m a shit, thought Edie.

“It is the most beautiful necklace I have ever seen in my entire life,” she said.  She took it from his tiny hand and then tied it around her neck.

“You look pretty,” he said.

She did not look pretty, she thought.  She did not believe she had looked pretty in a long time.  Her business clothes no longer fit her right, not her jackets, not her shirts…but she could not bring herself to buy a new wardrobe.  Maybe if she gave Weight Watchers a shot this time.  There was always the vague promise of that lingering in her future.

That last paragraph is more or less the exact monologue that went through my mind about half an hour before I read it, as I was standing in my closet wondering if I’m going to have to buy myself more new pants than I can afford before school starts, or can tough it out in the stuff I bought myself last year at least until winter comes and I have to start packing long johns under things.  So yes, there’s a certain amount of “relatability” here, but it’s not the type that makes you feel good about yourself.  It’s the type that makes you feel real about yourself.  Uncomfortably, importantly real.

What’s more, there are plenty of other characters to identify with, whether we relate to them or not.  It may be difficult to forgive Richard, Edie’s husband, for abandoning her, but it isn’t difficult to identify with the suffering and helplessness he feels in the face of her abuse and her disorder.  Her daughter-in-law Rachelle may be an uptight little control freak, but she also really wants to do something for Edie, to fix this situation before Edie destroys herself.  The bratty granddaughter, the angry daughter, the son who’s too high to do anything but ask his wife to deal – we may not really “relate” to anyone, because their foibles are so prominently displayed that it’s hard not to judge them and get pissed off with them and wish we could smack them around the head a little until they wise up.

But I didn’t meet a single person in this novel – including the elderly Chinese restaurant owner who falls in love with Edie, and the gay dance teacher whose drawer full of bar mitzvah “save the date” gift magnets signals that everyone wants to be his friend but he has better things to do – that I couldn’t identify with in some way.  Every character is totally infuriating and totally sympathetic.

It’s quite a feat, and it’s a wonderful book.  I’d read it if I were you.

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Here are some books that I’m working on but won’t get a chance to write about, unless I love them enough to put them in my Top Ten Books list at the end of the year.  So far, they’re all really good!

  • Katrina Onstad: Everybody Has Everything. After a car crash, Ana and James find themselves guardians of a little boy, perhaps permanently.  They quickly learn a lot about themselves and their relationship.  I’m about halfway through this and loving it.
  • Karl Ove Knausgaard: A Death in the Family (Book One of the My Struggle series).  Any serious reader living today has to at least attempt this six-volume autobiographical “novel” series.  So far, it’s slow and demands a lot of concentration, but is also stunning.  I’m only a few pages in; it’s my bedside book, and I’ve fallen out of the habit of reading before sleep.  I suspect it will be my subway reading once school starts.
  • Jeff Lemire: Essex County.  This collection of three graphic novels was, like Asterios Polyp, recommended by commenter Kathleen.  It is wonderful, but melancholy; I’m reading it in short instalments.
  • Adelle Waldman: The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.  I started this book while I was in the hospital, in the hours before surgery (afterwards, I was able to do nothing but fall asleep over and over while listening to podcasts.)  I have read about 100 pages.  It is an easy and biting little satire told from the point of view of an incorrigible ladies’ man.  I was enjoying it a lot, but, because I own it, I put it aside when I got home in order to tackle the books that will eventually have to go back to the library.
  • Tin House: The Writer’s Notebook I and II.  I would really like to look back, once the summer is over, and feel good about the amount of fiction writing I got done.  I am finding these two volumes of collected essays on writing craft to be extremely helpful.  If I’m feeling resistant in the morning, I choose an essay that seems to tackle a writing problem I’m having and I read it over my coffee.  If you are a writer who needs some guidance, I’d recommend these books; I ordered them as part of Tin House’s Writer’s Series.

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Have you read The Middlesteins, or any of the other books I’m working on?  If so, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week?

Thanks again for reading, commenting and following along!  I look forward to dedicating next summer to reading more awesome books and hearing about what you’re reading, too.

 

Summer Book Club Week 6: Still Life With Bread Crumbs

Guidelines for the Summer Book Club: if you’ve read this book, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week? Please comment, or post on your own blog and link in the comments below.

Cover Image - Bread CrumbsDon’t get me wrong: Anna Quindlen’s Still Life With Bread Crumbs is a good book.  The prose is beautifully invisible, just as I like it.  The characters are, with one exception, convincing, and the structure is odd enough to keep things interesting.

In terms of plot, though, my alarms started going off early.  Still Life With Bread Crumbs is a middle-aged-lady romantic fantasy, and my antipathy to such fantasies may be a symptom of my own self-loathing.  I am, after all, a middle-aged lady.  I am in good health and of relatively sound mind, and some people find me pleasant and/or interesting company.  However, I feel quite certain that, if my husband runs off with … whoever, men twenty years my junior will not be mooning around about my extraordinary mouth, or whatever my equivalent is to Rebecca Winter’s odd sixty-year-old embouchre.

Maybe I’m wrong about this – what do I know about men and what they moon about? – and, if so, I apologize to Anna Quindlen, and men, and middle-aged ladies everywhere, for my incredulity.  However, the character of Jim Bates is a classic romance novel hero, and I’m not a fan of the genre.  Of course we middle-aged ladies would like to believe that men like he exist, men who can fix the roof AND survey local wildlife in their spare time AND  bring us packets of their fresh-killed venison because they sense we might need it AND still find time to be a bit distracted because there is something about us that they just can’t shake free of.  I have less life experience than Anna Quindlen or her heroine; also, if Quindlen’s bio photo is any indication, I am considerably less attractive at forty-four than she is in her sixties.  So maybe she knows things I don’t.

Nonetheless, the passages from Jim Bates’ point of view prompted me to say, “Oh, come on,” more than once.  Out loud.  Lines like “every time Jim Bates looked at her lower lip he had an impulse to take it gingerly between his front teeth” would be interesting if they were complicated by some sort of ambivalence or even menace, but instead, they seem to be expressions of a tender manly (read: Harlequinesque) desire for a woman old enough to be his mother that I just can’t swallow.  Do I think men in their forties can be sexually attracted to women in their sixties?  Of course they can.  Do I think that attraction manifests itself the way Quindlen portrays it?  I don’t, and she didn’t convince me.

That said, I held my nose and kept reading, because there’s so much else going on here.  Rebecca isn’t a straightforward Mary Sue; she’s difficult, bruised, and mostly realistic in her assessments of herself, particularly her fall from art stardom to poverty and mediocrity, and the demise of her pretty nasty marriage.  Her portrait of her relationship with her ex-husband is delicious, full of observations like

Rebecca forgave him nothing.  She told herself that this was not because he had betrayed her but because he had betrayed his son.  This was one of those statements that sounded sensible until you compared it against actual human psychology.

or – and this one just kills me:

Peter would do something…and she would gather up her shreds of dignity and respond with the silent treatment.  Except that Peter liked the silent treatment – he found it restful.

I mean, that is one beautiful line.  There are more.  I kept considering tossing this book aside, and then something like that would come up, and I’d think, Wow, and I’d keep reading.  I’m not sorry.  I’m not able to suspend my disbelief enough to truly enjoy  traditional romances, but Quindlen’s exemplar is an impressive one.

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Also read this week: Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep, while I wait for The Fever to be available at my library.  I took a stab at Abbott’s Dare Me a few years ago, and felt like if I could get past the demanding prose at the beginning, I would probably find it riveting.  (I’ve said it before: i like my prose invisible.  Anything showy puts me off.)  Being short on time, I didn’t push on. Bury Me Deep gave me the same trouble, but it’s summer now, and I made the effort, and was rewarded.  It’s a wonderfully rich little pot-boiler, and I can’t wait to get Abbott’s other novels.

Abandoned this week:

  • The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion.  I wanted to be charmed by this book.  It’s clear that Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, one of my favourite books, is an important influence.  However, about 1/4 of the way in, I began to suspect that The Rosie Project is about how someone with Asperger’s syndrome can learn to be a delightful romantic hero by just trying harder, and my gut reaction was “No thanks.”
  • Delicious! by Ruth Reichl.  I probably didn’t give Delicious! a fair shot.  I love Reichl’s memoir Tender at the Bone; I teach it in my memoir class, and a lot of my students like it too.  It became apparent after a few pages that Delicious! is nothing like Tender at the Bone, and the exposition contains a lot of clunky dialogue, so I moved on.
  • The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton. See above re: showy prose.  Don’t like it.  This is my third stab at The Rehearsal; I keep being seduced by the cover and the promise of a story about high school sex scandals and precocious artistic teenagers.  People keep telling me I should read The Luminaries instead, but seriously, look at the size of it.

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Have you read Still Life With Bread Crumbs, or any of the other books I read/attempted this week? If so, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading?

Summer Book Club Week 5: Astonish Me

Guidelines for the Summer Book Club: if you’ve read this book, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week? Please comment, or post on your own blog and link in the comments below.

astonish-meAccording to the jacket flap, Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me is about “the nature of talent, the choices we must make in search of fulfillment, and how we square the yearning for comfort with the demands of art.”  To me, though, this is a novel about unrequited love.  It is not about one particular unrequited love story, but many: about the myriad shades of unrequited love, and the way it shapes all of us and makes us do both foolish and tremendous things.

I loved this book.  LOVED IT.

Like a lot of little girls, I was obsessed with ballet.  I took classes, and dreamed about going to the National Ballet School, but mostly, I read books about ballet.  I loved Veronica Tennant’s On Stage, Please, about a girl’s first years in the dance world, and must have read it ten times. When I was a teenager, I compulsively read and reread a pulp novel called Ballerina.  This story of two friends following their ballet dreams is a big pile of garbage, but I wanted to live in its pulsing, backbiting, sexy world all the time. (I didn’t imagine I’d be able to confirm the title, or even the existence, of this book, all these years later – it seems like something that should have vanished long ago into the mists of trashy book history – but check out this wonderful review by someone who was similarly bewitched by it.)

Astonish Me has all the intensity and glamour of those books, but it is masterfully crafted literary novel for grownups.  In 1975, Joan, a member of the corps in a New York ballet company, helps a gifted premier danseur defect from the Soviet Union.  She loves him, but it’s clearly never going to work.  Things unfold from there: Joan’s roommate, Elaine, loves the gay artistic director of the company; Joan’s high school best friend loves Joan and eventually marries her; their son Harry loves their next-door neighbour’s daughter Chloe;  everyone knows how everyone else feels and just muddles along, taking what they need when it is offered, and offering what they can in return.

This central theme – that relationships are never balanced, that devotion is never equal, but that we can connect with each other anyway – unfolds through beautiful, convincing dialogue and a series of quiet yet disquieting events.  The characters are intelligent and self-aware – they know themselves, but in a way that seems entirely real and not precocious.  The teenaged Harry, for example, sitting next to Chloe in a dark theatre watching a musical, “imagines how one day he will be the best dancer and Chloe will want to dance only with him.”  How many of us, watching someone do something astonishing on a stage or a racetrack or a screen, have imagined ourselves into the body of the star we are observing, and have imagined the love we would inspire in someone we can’t seem to reach in any other way?  The title of the book calls out to this yearning.  “Astonish me,” we imagine the other is thinking.  “All you have to do is astonish me, and then I will love you.”

I wanted this book never to end.  I can’t wait to get my hands on Shipstead’s earlier novel, Seating Arrangements.  If you have ever been in love with ballet, or the idea of ballet, or any other art, or a person who didn’t love you back, or the idea of a person who was really someone else entirely, I hope you’ll read this book.

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Also read this week: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. This is a spooky little romp; I read it in an afternoon.  The choppy semi-stream-of-consciousness style is not really my thing, but it’s a good story and I was T-boned by the ending.

Abandoned this week: Joyce Carol Oates’ Carthage.  I try again and again to read Oates, and I just can’t do it.  Her short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is one of my favourites of all time, but I have found that I can tolerate about a short-story’s worth of each her novels before I’m overcome with despair and have to go watch a sitcom to pull myself together.

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Have you read Astonish Me, or either of the other two books I attempted this week? If so, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading?

Summer Book Club Week 3: The Signature of All Things

Guidelines for the Summer Book Club: if you’ve read this book, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week? Please comment, or post on your own blog and link in the comments below.

sigofallthingsSometimes I think I just don’t like reading any more.  Then I pick up a book like The Signature of All Things.

If Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat, Pray, Love and other fine stories, hadn’t been the author, I wouldn’t have given this novel a chance.  There are several strikes against it.  First, it’s a big fat book (499 pages long). Given how short an interlude I have between the end of all my work responsibilities (I finished my last major tasks last Thursday) and their return (the middle of August), and the difficulty I have reading anything for pleasure during the school term, I’m rarely tempted by long books.  Second, the story begins with the birth of the protagonist, Alma Whittaker, in 1800.  I don’t usually care for historical fiction, so this was enough to put me off immediately.  Third, Alma is a botanist, and a lot of the story is about plants.  Now, I love to garden, and I love reading gardening how-to books, but “nature writing” has never been my bag.  (Don’t get me started on Annie Dillard.)

But you don’t have to care about plants, or the 19th century, to love this book.  You just need to care about being told a good story, no matter how long and rich and sprawling it is.

If Jane Austen were writing now, and writing historical rather than contemporary novels, she might write a book like The Signature of All Things. After Alma’s birth, we learn about the life of her father, a plant theif-cum-entrepreneur whose experiences help shape Alma into the scientist she becomes.  We learn about her loving but troubled relationships with her father, her mother, her sister, her mad best friend, and the various men who float in and out of her life.  At the centre of the story are a few  subjects that are both timely and timeless: the opportunities and limitations a woman faces when she is brilliant and homely; the complicated and unexpected forms that love can take; the precarious balance between one’s own happiness and that of others.

The force that drives the reader forward is Alma, who is wonderful: self-possessed and yet self-questioning, perceptive but occasionally shamed by her own blindness, determined to learn about both the natural world and the humans who live in it.  She is surrounded by other wonderful characters, like Hanneke the housekeeper, the only person Alma trusts with her deepest fears and griefs, because Alma knows that sobbing in Hanneke’s arms will bring about real consolation and not empty soothing:

“But I loved him,” Alma said.

Hanneke sighed. “Then you made an expensive error.  You loved a man who thought the world was made of butter.  You loved a man who wished to see stars by daylight.  He was nonsense.”

“He was not nonsense.”

“He was nonsense.

The prose is stunning: precise, transparent, fast-moving, meticulous, and often surprising.  Gilbert describes Alma in one of her writing frenzies as “like a besotted drunk – who can run without falling, but who cannot walk without falling” – this made me laugh out loud.  Portraying the cool childhood relationship between Alma and her recently adopted sister Prudence, Gilbert explains,

Unkind words were never once exchanged.  They respectfully shared an umbrella with each other, arm in arm, whenever they walked in the rain.  They stepped aside for each other at doorways, each willing to let the other pass first….Prudence made for Alma [at Christmas] an exquisite satin pincushion, rendered in Alma’s favorite color, aubergine….”Thank you for the pincushion,” Alma wrote to Prudence, in a short note of considered politeness. “I shall be certain to use it whenever I find myself in need of a pin.”

The novel is riddled with these exquisite moments of characterization, and for this reason, I couldn’t put it down.  Which just goes to show: when it comes to reading novels, it is essential that we put aside our prejudices for the first fifty pages or so, because we never know what we might find.  You might think you don’t like long novels, or historical novels, or novels about the history of science, but maybe that’s because you haven’t yet read The Signature of All Things.

Have you read this book? If so, what did you think?  What about Gilbert’s other work; if you’ve read Eat, Pray, Love or any of her other works, are you a fan?

If not, what are you reading this week?

How Sexy is Too Sexy?

mllLe8AHow much explicit sex is acceptable in a book required for a college class?  If students have some say in whether they read the book, does that make a difference?

One of my courses includes a list of eight novels about adolescence.  Four or five students will read each novel and will work together to present it to the class.  I speak to them briefly about each book at the beginning of the semester.  They browse the books (I provide them with front and back covers and first chapters), and give me a list of their top three choices; I do my best to accommodate their preferences.

Each year, when ordering books for the coming semester, I look at the list from last time and adapt it, based on how the novels from the previous year went over.  This year, I’m jettisoning three novels from last time and replacing them with new ones.

As I carry out this process, I have a foolish habit.  In the scramble to put together a list of eight books (or, in a recent scenario, forty-five books) on a particular subject or of a particular genre, I sometimes throw in something that I haven’t actually read.  And for “sometimes,” read “often.”  Every time, I regret this decision.  And the next time, I do it again.  This semester I HAD to get my book orders in at a moment when I had NO TIME to do any extra reading.  And so I decided to once again throw caution to the winds, and ordered Scott Spencer’s Endless Love for my course on novels about adolescence.

I’d been meaning for years to read Endless Love, based on recommendations from a number of book critics I respect.  I’d even downloaded and read an excerpt on my e-reader, and was blown away by it, and had been intending to buy and read the whole thing ever since.  I hadn’t gotten around to it, but I figured that my impulse to keep reading, and the general critical acclaim the book has received, and its focus on adolescent love, made it suitable.  So I placed my order, and got myself a copy, and started reading.

Thirty-five pages in, I was greeted with a graphic, dripping, pulsating depiction of teenage, heterosexual anal sex.

The scene is not gratuitous.  It’s fundamental to the fabric of the novel.  It is beautifully, if shockingly (at least to me) rendered.  It is absolutely appropriate to the book.

The questions is, is it appropriate for a college classroom?

Some of my students will be under eighteen; some will be deeply and narrowly religious; some will be really immature.  Others will be able to handle explicit sex scenes and appreciate them for what they are: an integral part of the story.  When I briefly present the book to the class and mention that some of them may wish to avoid it if they’re uncomfortable with graphic sex, many of them will be titillated and will choose the book for that reason.  (This is what happens with Alice Sebold’s Lucky in my memoir course, when I tell them they should avoid it if they are worried about the opening rape scene; the vast majority of students choose it as one of their readings.)  Others will be absent that day, will be assigned the book or choose it themselves, and will be outraged.

Is it worth the hassle?  I’m three-quarters of the way through now; for the last 250 pages, there has been no sex, although I can see some on its way.  (Yes, another concern is that this novel is LONG.)  It’s a really good book, and some of them are going to love it.  If I want to pull it from the course, I need to let the bookstore know, like, now.

What’s a teacher to do?  Trust that they will choose wisely and handle the consequences?  Take the chance that there will be fallout?  Find another book?  What would you do?

Image by matchstick

My Top 10 Books of 2012

It’s time again for the list of books that I enjoyed most this year.  As always, only some of these books were published in 2012, but they were all a part of my 2012 experience.

gone-girl-book-cover-med1. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Each of my  top 5 could easily have been #1.  In the end, I put Gone Girl in the top spot because on almost every page I muttered to myself, “How is she DOING this?”

I want to be a mystery novel lover, because the genre is so huge and so there are so many pleasures to be had, but I often get halfway through a mystery and admit to myself that I simply don’t care who did it or why  (P. D. James is someone who often disappoints me this way).  Other times I don’t even get that far, because I am so distracted by the poor writing.  There are a few writers who never let me down. Kate Atkinson is one; Tana French (see below) is another; and now, I have Gillian Flynn, and I am so, so grateful.

personbe2. How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

This was a Christmas gift from my husband, and I read it in less than 24 hours.  Heti reminds me of Lydia Davis, but without Davis’s chilly control.  Don’t get me wrong – chilly control is what I’m all about – but How Should a Person Be is exhilarating, befuddling, and inspiring.  Imagine if Lena Dunham made a film that was only interior monologue – it would be a bit like this novel.  Self-absorbed and miniature in detail, yet huge in scope.  Full of laugh-out-loud gorgeous turns of phrase.  I’ve known of Heti for a while but have never felt inclined toward her work – I’ll go back and investigate her earlier books now.

BROKEN HARBOUR_UK3. Broken Harbour by Tana French

See comments on Gone Girl, above.  Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series is a collection of those rare finds: murder mysteries that are re-readable.  Not only did I list her novel The Likeness as one of my Top 10 Books of 2010, but it may be one of my favourite books of all time.  Broken Harbour may be just as good.  The intersection of intricate plotting with beautiful writing is almost unparallelled.  Also: set in Ireland, which can’t hurt.

areyoumymother4. Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

This book should probably be #1, but my top picks are all so good that ranking them is stymieing me.  I love graphic novels.  Bechdel’s Fun Home, in which she grapples with the legacy of her complicated father, is also one of my favourite books of all time.  In this sequel of sorts, she turns her analytical eye on her equally difficult relationship with her mother.  One difference: her mother is still alive, and an active participant in the writing and narration of the story.  Fascinating, unrelenting, and funny, and Bechdel’s artwork never fails to slay me.

book-children-succeed5. How Children Succeed by Paul Tough

I have written several posts on Tough’s work, including a review of this book and a meditation on an excerpt that was published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.  He is a deep thinker on educational issues, yet he writes fluidly and accessibly and has a warm and gentle sense of humour.  This is not just a work of social science; it’s an entertaining and enlightening read.

marbles6. Marbles by Ellen Forney

Another graphic novel.  Forney’s chronicle of her battle with bipolar disorder is hilarious, touching, instructive and hopeful.  Her honest recounting of her own experience is interwoven with historical and medical info.  The central question – “Do I have to be crazy to be a great artist?” – is not answered, but the exploration is illuminating.

Phantomtollbooth7. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

One of my projects this year was to prepare a list of 42 children’s books for reading in my Child Studies course.  When I asked for recommendations, The Phantom Tollbooth came up over and over.  I’d never read it. Now I have.  It is great, and the final line is now one of my all-time favourite quotations.

basilef8. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg

Compiling the above-mentioned children’s book list has involved re-reading lots of old childhood favourites.  I’d forgotten how fantastic this novel is.  I must have read it 10 or 12 times as a child, and reading it again now was perhaps my most delightful reading experience of the year, not just for the book itself but for the immediacy with which it transported me back to being a child reader, the wonder of which is difficult to retrieve in adulthood.

(Note: the finished list of books for the Child Studies course can be found here, if you’re interested.)

filmclub9. The Film Club by David Gilmour

This was also a re-read; it was one of the memoirs I taught in my Personal Narrative course this fall.  I thought my students might like it – a story about a father who lets his teenage son drop out of school if he agrees that they watch and discuss three films a week, chosen by the father – but I was surprised by how much they enjoyed it, and how much I enjoyed it the second time around.

quiet10. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Is this a cheat?  I didn’t actually read this book – I listened to it as an audiobook, and then bought the book so that I could read it, and haven’t gotten around to it yet.  People keep telling me that listening to a book counts, and I loved this book, so it makes the list.  If you often wonder if there’s something wrong with you because you don’t love going to parties, you’d rather write an email than talk on the phone, and you feel anxious if you don’t get some alone time every day, then this book is for you.  It helped me embrace my introverted weirdness and recognize its strengths.

Please tell me your favourite book(s) of the year!  And happy reading in 2013.

My Top 10 Books of 2010

I encourage you all to make your own lists, either in the comments below or on your own blog (please post the link in the comments) because of course I don’t already have enough unread books in my house.

Note: These books were not necessarily published in 2010, but they were part of my 2010 experience.

1. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I really don’t care about the ins and outs of the music industry, but this novel made me care.  It also made me believe that a PowerPoint presentation can be as poignant and funny as a short story.  Without question, the best book I read all year.  Down side: I’m not sure there’s any point in my writing fiction ever again.

2. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

A bunch of people working at, or linked to, an English-language newspaper in Rome.  Similar in structure to Jennifer Egan’s book in that it seems at first to be a series of disconnected stories, but it’s not.  Even the characters who seem the least lovable are completely absorbing.  Also: funny.

3. The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine

I cried at the end of this one.  Works best if you have recently read or watched Sense and Sensibility, but I expect it would be a joy ride regardless.  Sent me running for Schine’s earlier works, none of which really did it for me, but I’m waiting on tenterhooks for her next one.

4. The Likeness by Tana French

I am not usually a mystery reader.  Exceptions include P. D. James and Kate Atkinson.  I am totally chuffed about finding Tana French.  I finished The Likeness just last night and, although it was well past my bedtime, I reread the last page four times because I didn’t want it to end.  In short: detective is called to the scene of a murder.  The victim looks exactly, but exactly, like her.  Beautiful, heart-gripping chaos ensues.  French has a new book out this year and it’s garnered her a lot of new attention – I wish I were one of the cool people who had discovered her earlier.

5. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Enough has been said about this book.  My two cents: believe the hype.  It’s that good.

6. One Day by David Nicholls

Follows a “couple” – they sleep together in college and remain friends – by dropping in on them on the same day every year.  Very funny, often painful, at times a bit lumpy but worth it.

7. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

This is a bit of a cheat – I listened to this on audiobook last year, but read it for the first time this summer so I could teach it.  One of the most enjoyable memoirs I’ve ever read – easy, funny, moving, perfect for the classroom.  Walls renders her horrifying childhood and her impossibly selfish parents without a drop of pathos or self-pity.  Hard to believe such terrible memories could have produced such a wonderful and touching romp.

8. Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

Linked short-stories about a middle-school teacher.  I don’t know if I loved it because I’m a teacher, but it seems I’m not the only one – Jonathan Franzen and Michael Cunningham both give it raving blurbs.  I don’t read a lot of short-story collections these days, but this one feels almost like a novel, like a string of perfectly irregular jewels.

9. Y: The Last Man: Book 4 by Brian K. Vaughan et al.

I am a graphic novel lover.  I’m not so much into the post-apocalyptic sci-fi vein, but the Y: The Last Man series is my favorite graphic novel series ever.  A young man named Yorick, and his male monkey Ampersand, are the only male animals left on earth after a mysterious plague.  They set off to find Yorick’s girlfriend.  Problems: they don’t know where she is, and being a man in this manless world is … complicated.  Stephen King calls it “the best graphic novel I’ve ever read,” if that matters.

10. The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow

This beautiful little book, styled like a note/sketchbook, is aimed at tween girls, and I wish I’d read it when I was one, but it just came out this year.  Lydia and Julie are not popular, but they have a plan to become popular, and this book is an illustrated log of their progress.  As you can imagine, their plan takes unexpected turns and even puts their friendship in jeopardy.  The two girls are enchanting, the pictures are delicious, and reading it made for an afternoon that I would have very much appreciated when I was twelve years old and unhappy with who I was.  Give it to a girl you know; it might change her forever, but at the very least, she’ll have a good time.

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